In recent days we have seen political action committees (PACs) claiming they are "prohibited" from running political ads in primary states due to "new rules" regarding "electioneering communications."  As explained below, these claims are incorrect.  What they are really doing is trying to avoid the need to reveal the identity of their contributors, following a US District Court decision in March.

Under Federal Election law, an "electioneering communication" is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, targeted to 50,000 or more people in the state or district the candidate seeks to represent. For President and Vice Presidential candidates, an "electioneering communication" is one that can be received by 50,000 or more people within 30 days of a state primary or the nominating convention.

By federal statute, sponsors of "electioneering communications" must disclose the names and addresses of each donor who contributed $1000 or more to the sponsoring organization. This is is the provision that led to the US District Court decision at issue.


Continue Reading Some PACs Stop Running “Electioneering Communication” Ads to Avoid Reporting Requirements

Political speech has been called the "life-breath of democracy" by the US Supreme Court and receives very strong First Amendment protection.  For that reason, the FCC has said that it will "not attempt to judge the truth or falsity of material broadcast regarding candidates or ballot issues."  That principle is sure to be tested in the wave of negative campaign ads we are likely to see between now and November, many of which will generate "cease and desist" letters from the subjects of those negative ads. Of course, broadcasters and cable operators alike are immune from liability for anything said in the context of a candidate "use" featuring a sponsoring candidate’s recognizable voice or image…the so-called "no censorship" rule.

There is, however, one type of political ad that could create potential liability for the media if allowed to run unchecked:  A third party or PAC attack ad that is defamatory. A defamatory ad is one that exposes the candidate to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule.  Generally, these are ads that allege crime, fraud, dishonest or immoral conduct on the part of the candidate.  Truth is the only absolute defense to a defamatory claim.  Therefore, when defamation is alleged, substantiation should be requested.  Read on for details of a recent case study….


Continue Reading Political Ad Content—When Do You Need to Worry?

The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine

On November 10, Davis Wright Tremaine’s David Oxenford and Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, conducted a webinar on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules and policies.  The webinar originated from Lansing, Michigan, before an audience of Michigan Broadcasters, and was webcast to broadcasters in 13 other states.  Topics discussed included reasonable

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the significant amount of money being spent on television advertising for and against pending proposals for health care reform.  As we have written before, broadcasters are required to keep in their public file information about advertising dealing with Federal issues – records as detailed as those kept for political candidates.  Information in the file should include not only the sponsor of the ad, but also when the spots are scheduled to run (and, after the fact, when they did in fact run), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the advertising.  Clearly, the health care issue is a Federal issue, as it is being considered by the US Congress in Washington.  So remember to keep your public file up to date with this required information. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act deals with these issues, stating that these records must be kept for any request to purchase time on a "political matter of national importance", which is defined as any matter relating to a candidate or Federal election or "a national legislative issue of public importance."  Clearly, health care would fit in that definition.  The specific information to be kept in the file includes:

  • If the request to purchase time is accepted or rejected
  • Dates on which the ad is run
  • The rates charged by the station
  • Class of time purchased
  • The issue to which the ad refers
  • The name of the purchaser of the advertising time including:
    • The name, address and phone number of a contact person
    • A list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of the sponsoring organization.


Continue Reading Health Policy Ads on Broadcast Stations – Remember Your Public File Obligations

We’re not even in what most would consider election season – except for the two states with off-year governor’s contests and those other states with various state and municipal elections. Yet political ads are running on broadcast stations across the country.  Republican groups have announced plans to run ads attacking certain Democratic Congressmen who are perceived as vulnerable, while certain Democratic interest groups have run ads about the positions of Republicans on the Obama stimulus package and the President’s proposed budget.   In addition to these ads targeting specific potential candidates, there are issue ads running across the country on various issues pending before Congress, or likely to be considered by Congress in the near term. These ads often have a tag line “write or call your Congressman and tell him to vote No” on whatever bill is being discussed. While these are not ads for political candidates that require lowest unit rates or specific equal opportunities, they do give rise to political file issues.  Stations need to remember to observe these requirements and put the required information into their public file to avoid FCC issues.

Under provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, when a station runs an ad addressing a “Federal issue”, the station must keep in its public file essentially all the same information about the ad that it would maintain for a candidate ad. The station must identify the spot and the schedule that its sponsor has purchased, the identify of the sponsor (name, address and list of principal executive officers or directors), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the ads.  Federal issues are ones that deal with a Federal election or with any issue to be considered by Congress or any Federal government agency.


Continue Reading Remember FCC Public File Obligations When Running Issue Advertising

While it seems like we just finished the election season, it seems like there is always an election somewhere.  We are still getting calls about municipal and other state and local elections that are underway.  And broadcasters need to remember that these elections, like the Federal elections that we’ve just been through, are subject to the FCC’s equal time (or "equal opportunities") rule.  The requirement that lowest unit rates be applied in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election also apply to these elections.  "Reasonable access," however, does not apply to state and local candidates – meaning that stations can refuse to take advertising for state and local elections (unlike for Federal elections where candidates must be given the right to buy spots in all classes and dayparts on a station), as long as all candidates for the same office are treated in the same way. So stations can take ads for State Senate candidates, and refuse to take ads for city council, or restrict those ads to overnight hours, as long as all candidates who are running against each other are treated in the same way.

One issue that arises surprisingly often is the issue of the station employee who runs for local office.  An employee who appears on the air, and who decides to become a candidate for public office, will give rise to a station obligation to give equal opportunities to other candidates for that same office – free time equal to the amount of time that the employee’s recognizable voice or likeness appeared on the air.  While a station can take the employee off the air to avoid obligations for equal opportunities, there are other options for a station.  See our post here on some of those options.


Continue Reading Reminder: Equal Time and Lowest Unit Rate Rules Apply to State and Municipal Elections

Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry.  Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion).  Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  What’s all the fuss about anyway?

To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not.  We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issuesEssentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine Back in the News (Part 1) – What’s It all About?

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate’s use.  Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine.  While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming.  Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations.  Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made.  All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain’s appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve.  Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them.  This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.

This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don’t like because they don’t want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions.  Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain’s appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch.  He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.


Continue Reading Does McCain on Saturday Night Live Signal the End of Equal Time?